29 December 2011

Pioneer of Mind-body link, Robert Ader

Today I saw this obituary for Dr. Robert Ader, who was an early investigator of the relationship of mind and immune system.  Here's an excerpt:

His initial research, in the 1970s, became a touchstone for studies that have since mapped the vast communications network among immune cells, hormones and neurotransmitters. It introduced a field of research that nailed down the science behind notions once considered magical thinking: that meditation helps reduce arterial plaque; that social bonds improve cancer survival; that people under stress catch more colds; and that placebos work not only on the human mind but also on supposedly insentient cells.
At the core of Dr. Ader’s breakthrough research was an insight already obvious to any grandmother who ever said, “Stop worrying or you’ll make yourself sick.” He demonstrated scientifically that stress worsens illness — sometimes even triggering it — and that reducing stress is essential to health care.

That idea, now widely accepted among medical researchers, contradicted a previous principle of biochemistry, which said that the immune system was autonomous. As late as 1985, the idea of a connection between the brain and the immune system was dismissed in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine as “folklore.”

26 December 2011

More on 'The Beginning of Infinity'

David Deutsch's book 'The Beginning of Infinity' has a fairly straightforward message when you boil it down.  He believes that a scientific worldview that looks to create and continually improve the explanations of how things work leads to an infinite chain of discovery and improvement.  The subtitle 'Explanations that Transform the World' indicates the importance he places on science as explanation - which depends both on the creative act of conjecture and the continual open-minded questioning and criticism that must test every explanation and reject those that don't hold water.  As I mention in the previous post, he is open to abstract emergence as necessary part of explanations, and in fact appears to feel that essentially everything (from laws of physics to people) are abstractions.

Deutsch makes some leaps here that I found more based on faith than on any proof of argument - such as the notion that humans are 'universal explainers' capable of understanding and explaining anything.  On page 60, he writes "if the claim is that we may be qualitatively unable to understand what some other forms of intelligence can - if our disability cannot be remedied by mere automation - then this is just another claim that the world is not explicable.  Indeed it is tantamount to an appeal to the supernatural..."  He seems to be saying that unless everything is fully explicable by humans then there's no point in explaining anything, which I find unconvincing.

I am interested in the comparison of the idea of infinity with the idea of 'universal' - as Deutsch explains Cantor's work, there are levels of infinity - countable infinities and uncountable.  It seems possible to me that an infinite part of the world could be explained by human intelligence, and yet there could be infinities more...

In any case, for this blog I like the fact that Deutsch sees human intelligence as key, and in particular the importance of the creative act.  At this point it's a mystery we don't understand - how new ideas are generated... but it does feel like the future depends on cultivating the best new explanations.

25 December 2011

Abstractions are real

I've been reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (2011), and it's full of interesting arguments, but one point in particular stood out to me for this blog. In chapter 5, titled 'The reality of abstractions' he takes issue with the reductionist approach that argues that all explanations must be reduced to elemental levels. Here's one way he argues the point:

You know that if your computer beats you at chess, it is really the program that has beaten you, not the silicon atoms or the computer as such. The abstract program is instantiated physically as a high-level behavior of vast numbers of atoms, but the explanation of why it has beaten you cannot be expressed without also referring to the program in its own right.

Deutsch goes on to argue against Douglas Hofstadter's position that the mind "can't push stuff around", and hence against Dennett's position that the 'I' is an illusion. Deutsch sums up: "There is no inconsistency in having multiple explanations of the same phenomenon, at different levels of emergence. Regarding micro-physical explanations as more fundamental than emergent ones is arbitrary and fallacious."